Facing Reality & Exposing The Myth of the Radical Self-Sufficient Individual
Am I my sister’s keeper? Am I my brother’s keeper? I have always found it interesting that when that phrase appears in popular media, it almost always is used in the same way as Scripture – as a deflection for accepting responsibility. That is, the character saying “what am I my sister’s keeper?” places himself or herself in the place of Cain, who is of course attempting to avoid accepting responsibility for murdering his brother Abel. The point of the Genesis story is quite clear – we are our brother/sister’s keeper.
If we fast forward to 2011, the popular imagination continues to try and deflect responsibility and deny the simply FACT of the human community. In its current incarnation, we stand before God trying to deflect responsibility through the delusions of libertarianism and the philosophy of Ayn Rand. There have been a series of Christian blogs, newspapers and magazines that have taken on the insidious influence of Ayn Rand on the Paul Ryan budget and Tea Party platform. (For example: John Gehring at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life; and an old favorite – from 2008 – Dan Finn‘s “Libertarian Heresy: The Fundamentalism of Free-Market Theology” to name a few). Paul Ryan and those who wish to uphold the “Catholic social teaching-cred” of his budget admit that Ayn Rand’s atheism is problematic and somehow define her “objectivist philosophy” as not really in her novels Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead. However, they seem to miss the very basic, foundational reality: any appeal to Ayn Rand’s vision of the human person or society is completely and utterly antithetical to both Christianity and REALITY ITSELF.
In a recent blog post on Forbes.com “What is Missing from the Budget Debate” Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Center makes this quite clear:
The moral justification for ending the entitlement state, Rand held, is a man’s absolute right to seek his own good and keep the rewards of his work.
In Rand’s words, “Since material goods are produced by the mind and effort of individual men, and are needed to sustain their lives, if the producer does not own the result of his effort, he does not own his life. . . . Whoever claims the ‘right’ to ‘redistribute’ the wealth produced by others is claiming the ‘right’ to treat human beings as chattel.”
Over on Aynrandcenter.org, he engages Ira Stoll at Future of Capitalism’s objection that one can argue for entitlement reduction while acknowledging that I can voluntarily accept SOME responsibility for others, but not for all Americans or all human persons. Brook rejects the re framing of “circles of obligation.”
I think, however, that framing the issue in terms of “circles of obligation” clouds the issue because it blurs a crucial distinction: obligations an individual voluntarily accepts in pursuit of his own interests, and unchosen obligations an individual supposedly has that demand him to sacrifice his interests.
. . .In my view, you can’t fight the welfare state by defending the welfare town. You have to fight for the individual’s moral and political right to pursue his own self-interest.
There is a radical inconsistency within both Brook’s quotes from Rand and his own concerning the individual’s moral and political right to pursue his own self interest. Material goods and the goods of the mind ARE NOT produced by individual’s mind and effort. The human person envisioned in Ayn Rand’s philosophy (and by neo-liberal capitalist theories of rational economic man) simply DOES NOT EXIST. It is not only that this human person is contrary to the vision of the person in Catholicism or Christianity, but that the human person as Robinson Crusoe in complete control of his fate cannot exist in the real world. (It should be noted that Robinson Crusoe had a proper English socialized education BEFORE being stranded….)
First, all wealth is socially created. I do not and cannot create a private money supply. If I were stranded on a desert island, US dollars would cease to have any meaning as “currency” and would quickly become either kindle or toilet paper.
Second, the human person as producing by his or her own mind and effort requires significant education. Education and language are both social endeavors. Any technological or cultural advancement is built on millennia of technology and culture of other civilizations. Paraphrasing Isaac Newton, “The reason we can stand so far is because we stand on the shoulder’s of giants.” Nowhere is this more clear than in the common quip “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.” (And any scholar of Ancient Philosophy will tell you, Plato does not come out of thin air but owed a great debt to Parmenides and the Pre-Socratics). The very process of reading a book is a social act. The beauty and uniqueness of human culture is that I can sit down and engage with Plato through his ideas – thus making current developments an active conversation with earlier societies.
Third, the two most important determining factors of how I will do in life are where you born (to what parents and in what country) and when you were born both of which are complete accidents. As the NY Times review of recent book by Branko Milanovic “The Haves and Have-nots” notes:
As Milanovic notes, an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were).
I am not denying that individual’s have the ability to radically change their life and prospects – our current first family is a testament to the best of the “American Dream.” However, both Barack and Michelle Obama would be quick to note that many people – family, friends, teachers and mentors, were all crucial in their success. We are social beings not radical individuals.
For Christians, there are many more arguments to be made. Christians believe that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, and we also believe that God is a communion of persons – Trinity. The dignity of both the person and the community is contained in the very doctrine of the imago dei. (As we say a lot on this website -= BOTH/AND). However, my purpose here to to focus merely on the fundamental problem in basing political and philosophical arguments on a human person which does not and cannot exist. – It is explicitly rejected by Catholic social teaching, as well.
In his final social encyclical Centesimus Annus (n51), Pope John Paul II states:
All human activity takes place within a culture and interacts with culture. For an adequate formation of a culture, the involvement of the whole person is required, whereby one exercises one’s creativity, intelligence, and knowledge of the world and of people. Furthermore, a person displays his capacity for self-control, personal sacrifice, solidarity and readiness to promote the common good. Thus the first and most important task is accomplished within the heart. The way in which one is involved in building one’s own future depends on the understanding a person has of himself and of his own destiny.
This duty is not limited to one’s own family, nation or state, but extends progressively to all humankind, since no one can consider himself extraneous or indifferent to the lot of another member of the human family. No one can say that he is not responsible for the well-being of his brother or sister (cf. Gen 4:9; Lk 10:29-37; Mt 25:31-46). Attentive and pressing concern for one’s neighbor in a moment of need–made easier today because of the new means of communication which have brought people closer together–is especially important with regard to the search for ways of resolving international conflicts other than by war. It is not hard to see that the terrifying power of the means of destruction–to which even medium and small-sized countries have access–and the ever closer links between the peoples of the whole world make it very difficult or practically impossible to limit the consequences of a conflict.
To base important decisions on the future of our society on this radical individual of Ayn Rand or neo-classical economics is perhaps the height of arrogance and selfishness. I cannot help but be reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park:
You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility… for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox.”